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Three Things We Learned Monday: Kawhi Leonard outduels James Harden, makes MVP case in Spurs win

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Busy Monday around the NBA, but I want to talk about Luke Cage, the Marvel comics series put on Netflix. I loved the first couple episodes, I was hooked, and then this show went for a walk in the wilderness. The clever writing and banter from the barbershop gave way to cliché or story lines that had the subtlety of an Adam Sandler film. It still was pretty good, I was just disappointed it didn’t fulfill its own promise.

1) Kawhi Leonard outduels James Harden, makes MVP case in Spurs win.
James Harden, one of the co-frontrunners for MVP (along with Russell Westbrook), had 39 points on 20 shots, plus dished out 12 assists. The Spurs defended him well, but he was 7-of-13 on contested shots. He was more than impressive in his leading of the Rocket offense, as he has been all season.

And he was the second best player on the court. Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to their eighth straight win with 39 points on 18 shots, he was 7-of-10 on contested looks, but he mostly strengthened his MVP case with his clutch play in the final minute when he hit the game winner on one end and blocked Harden on the other.

That is the core of Leonard’s case for the award — he is scoring 26.3 points a game and is the focal point of the fifth best offense in the NBA (the Spurs ranking), but he is also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, something the two people considered ahead of him on the list are not near. Leonard is making his MVP case, and it’s a strong one.

2) Andrew Bogut fractures tibia in first couple minutes on court with Cavaliers, likely done for season.
This just sucks. Andrew Bogut was a great pickup for the Cavaliers, someone who could come in and essentially play a better version of the Timofey Mozgov “big off the bench” role for the Cavs in certain matchups, giving them depth and versatility up front. It was a good fit.

Then in the first couple minutes on the court with his new team, this happened.

It was a fluke play. Bogut closed out on Miami’s Okaro White at the arc, and White made the right play putting the ball on the floor and trying to drive past him. However, White’s knee hit Bogut clean in the shin and fractured his leg. Bogut went to the ground clearly in pain.

The Cavaliers are still the team to beat in the East, but this is the kind of little thing that could matter in the Finals.

3) Clippers seem back, pick up win over Celtics at home. If the Clippers can stay healthy and find their form from the first month of the season, they can make the West playoffs interesting. I’m far from sold they can do it, but they looked closer to that Monday night beating the Celtics than anything we have seen in a while.

Chris Paul‘s brilliance kept the game close in the first half, then midway through the third the Clippers took off and outscored the Celtics 63-35 to close the game and get the win. It was an offensive tour d’ force, with a combination of finding open men rolling hard to the rim, or getting the ball to open shooters who were knocking down shots. Chief among them was Jamal Crawford, who had 19 points in the game but almost all of those during the Clippers run, when he was draining threes.

PUMA signs likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, hires Jay-Z

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When it was announced that likely top-three pick Marvin Bagley III signed a shoe endorsement deal with PUMA, we noted that they were going all in and spending big (Bagley’s contract is about three times the average high draft pick first shoe deal).

We didn’t know the half of it.

On Monday word came the German-based shoe manufacturer had also inked a deal with likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, had signed their original endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, and hired Jay-Z to help with the branding and on the business side.

That’s a heck of a day. And a massive commitment to the market.

Winning over people to buy PUMA basketball shoes is going to take a few things (including making great shoes), but getting high-profile endorsers is part of it. Ayton can potentially be that for them, a global brand ambassador.

Nick DePaula of ESPN broke the Ayton news and had details from the player himself.

For Ayton, there was plenty of interest in pursuing a shoe deal with Puma, although the brand has been out of the basketball landscape for 20 years since signing Vince Carter in 1998. Ayton shares a connection to two of its biggest ambassadors, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and pop star Rihanna of Barbados, after growing up in the Caribbean.

“Puma is pretty popular in the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “I’ve always seen the brand growing up. [Bolt] is one of the first people I saw with the brand. It’s important to me that someone I identify with and admire as an athlete is with the same brand.”

PUMA also reached an endorsement deal with NBA rookie to be Zhaire Smith.

Going old-school with Frazier was a classy touch.

But the surprise news was the partnership with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation organization. Complex had the story.

On top of that, JAY-Z has joined as the company’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve been working with Roc Nation for quite some time. They’ve been great partners to us for several years. We’ve done many different deals with many different ambassadors,” Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, told Complex. When Puma approached him about this opportunity, JAY-Z felt it “was something he wanted to be a part of,” according to Petrick.

Hov will have a hand in the players selected to join Puma’s basketball division, as well as assist in the art design and overall concept and direction of the brand.

Will this work?

Maybe, despite Nike’s stranglehold on the basketball shoe market (through the Jordan brand as well as endorsers such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant), there is room to get a foothold in the space. However, this needs to be a long-term commitment from PUMA where they not only design quality products but keep doing it for years and years. It’s one thing to maybe buy a pair of retro low-top Clydes to wear around, it’s another to get people to change the shoes the play in. People trust Nike and their products (and, to a lesser extent, Adidas and UnderArmor). PUMA has a lot of work to do to earn that level of respect.

But you can’t fault them for coming back with a big splash.

PBT Podcast: Risers. Sleepers. Who should go No. 2? Final full draft breakdown.

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Luka Doncic? Marvin Bagley III? Jaren Jackson Jr.?

If you were in the shoes of Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, who would you draft No. 2?

In this latest PBT Podcast, Kurt Helin and Rob Dauster (who has been writing the in-depth prospect profiles such as Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton, and others — of NBC Sports try on those shoes — and go an unexpected direction with it — as well as breaking down the rest of the draft such as the risers, the sleepers, and is Michael Porter Jr. worth the risk?

Also, in the bigger picture, are we focused too much on the bigs at the top of this draft — the majority of guys who will go in the top six — when we just saw in the last two rounds of the NBA playoffs that a lot of bigs can’t stay on the court in those situations? Which of these draftees can?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Rumor: Raptors trying to trade up in draft for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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The Raptors have major problems in the playoffs annually.

Is a coaching change enough to fix them?

Toronto already fired Dwane Casey and promoted assistant Nick Nurse after a highly successful regular season. Perhaps, major roster turnover could follow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a late lottery pick. The Raptors have no selections in this draft. So, acquiring one high enough to pick the Kentucky point guard would take plenty.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are stars. Toronto’s bench is stocked with solid young players. O.G. Anunoby is very promising.

So, the Raptors have pieces to move. The only question how much they’d package for a draft pick.

Toronto already has Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright at point guard. But Lowry is 32, and VanVleet will be a restricted free agent this summer. If they really believe in Gilgeous-Alexander, the Raptors should try to get him.

All that said, this is the time of year rumors – both credible and not – fly. So, it’s worth remaining skeptical while still considering the validity of what reputable reporters like Stein convey.

Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees

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Of course DeAndre Ayton will attend Thursday’s NBA draft. The Suns will likely draft him No. 1 overall.

But what about more marginal first-round prospects?

The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.

The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):

Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.

Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.

Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.

This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.

Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.